It is difficult to describe Zoho. You can use terminology you might use to describe any other organization and feel like you are failing. You can talk about culture, corporate social responsibility, innovation or sustainability until you realize how big the gap between “what Zoho means” versus “what everyone else means” comes into view. You can try, but in the end, you are left with a sense that you failed to accurately and fairly describe Zoho. At least that’s what happens to me.
In early 2023 I joined a rogue gaggle of industry analysts to trek to Zoho’s campus just outside of Chennai for an event dubbed Truly Zoho. Panel after panel of Zoho leaders shared an insider’s view and we analysts tried to accurately and fairly describe what we were hearing, seeing and experiencing. I’ve read article after article beautifully sharing the experience…but for some reason I was struggling. It wasn’t because there wasn’t plenty to share. I was struggling to document things in a way that was fair, accurate and, well, truly about Zoho.
Here is where I landed: Talking about Zoho is easy. Understanding Zoho is an entirely different experience and endeavor.
As a company Zoho is outright defiant in their individuality. What do you do when, ethically, you do not believe in tracking users or consumers with cookies? Build your own infrastructure and cloud to guarantee privacy is a baseline expectation and core to the business value of every product and offering. When opportunities and a lack of R&D is holding a country back, what next? You invest in rural revival to bring globally in-demand skills and innovation to India despite the assumptions of the world that innovation only happens in places like the Silicon Valley.
For some this brazen, maverick nature is frustratingly confusing. "How can you scale this?" "How will you keep this pace of growth?" "You can't possibly mean you building that from scratch?" "You can't do that."
These are all statements those of us who follow Zoho are used to hearing. I’ve heard people say, with earnest concern, that Zoho might not know what they are doing. They can’t possibly understand where their decisions will lead. There is an earnest worry that a group of good people will learn a hard lesson.
None of this is an accident. It is, however, the outcome of hundreds if not thousands of experiments. Zoho is happy to be home to teams of dreamers willing to experiment. Unlike other organizations where experiments are isolated or contained to reduce risk, Zoho removes any assumption that a failed experiment is a total failure. Failings are valued lessons, not grounds for termination. If an idea bubbles up and aligns with a customer’s need or request, teams are empowered to try…. empowered to experiment.
One early and lasting experiment: finding a new way to identify, educate and train the next generation of experimenters. For 17 years, Zoho Schools of Learning (informally called Zoho University by some,) has seen over 1,400 graduates advance across technology, design and business. Built as an alternative to traditional college or university programs that can often exclude students from far-flung rural villages across India, Zoho Schools focuses on the often-overlooked student that may not have the means to attend University but has the curiosity and will to learn and experiment.
This is most noticeable in the Zoho School’s boot camp style career re-entry program for women looking to return to work after a career break. During the Truly Zoho sessions, we had the opportunity to hear from women who had left the technology workforce. Most of these women told an all too familiar tale of leaving work to start or raise a family. The Marupadi program provides an intensive immersive retraining program to empowers these women for a comeback, brushing up on the latest technologies and skills during a full-time 3-month program. After a supervised internship program where graduates are placed with mentors to help guide them back into a role, Marupadi graduates are invited to interview for full time roles with Zoho.
While meeting the leaders of Zoho was an insightful glimpse into how and why Zoho exists today, it was the chance to meet with the students at Zoho Schools and especially the students and teachers at Kalaivani Kalvi Maiyam, the rural school teaching children as young as 2, that gave me the chance to see what Zoho will be in the future.
Zoho has not just existed but thrived by rejecting a berth in the global game of business dominance. It isn't that they don't want to play a game on the global stage...they just want us to come and play THEIR game. They want the rest of us, the rest of modern business, to stand up and fight for the future of innovation and experimentation. It is a bold and brazen dare: start a school, invest in tomorrow’s research and development, make the choice to sacrifice profit in order to power progress.
Sacrifice profit??? Zoho’s leaders decided to sacrifice growth to make a bold promise: nobody would be laid off as the world grappled with the threat of global financial recession and decline. For months we have seen headline after headline announcing layoffs. In order to appease Wall Street, investors, backers or shareholders, companies have made tough decisions to lay people off, cut back on research investments and implement austerity measures to keep ledgers in the black and ensure growth percentages did not fall. Zoho decided that the growth velocity they had consistently enjoyed over several years could slow if people could be prioritized.
Everyday management decisions in how to lead defy traditional business thinking. Decision making is pushed down into the teams and individuals closest to where those decisions turn into actions, especially when those decisions directly impact a customer’s experience with Zoho.
For those heading to an upcoming Zoholics event (I myself will be heading to the Austin whistlestop) these are the things I urge you to keep in mind:
- Ask why. It is OK if you think (possibly more than once) that what you see or what you think about Zoho doesn’t make sense. Instead of trying to fit Zoho or their technologies into a pre-existing mold, take a chance and jump into a conversation around WHY a new technology makes sense.
- Ask the strange questions. Ask the questions other vendors might think are irrelevant including where a Zoho employee is from or what path brought them to Zoho. The answers are as relevant to WHY a tool or solution exists as the market or technology itself.
- Ask what. In a world where words (especially buzzwords) are freely batted around, it can be easy to let things gloss over. Instead of assuming a phrase is being used for the buzz, ask what Zoho means. I especially encourage you to ask this anytime someone mentions privacy…trust me…they have a very intentional and foundational point of view on this that is totally intentional.
Perhaps the most important advice is this: suspend your disbelief. Just like my time in India, it will be totally worth it to learn who Zoho truly is.